Church's abortion broadside a challenge to democracy
The net effect of the people’s decision was to reinforce the Supreme Court judgment that abortion was legal in circumstances in which a mother’s life was in danger and that included the threat of suicide.
Then, in 2002, after a detailed consideration by a Constitution Review Group, the publication of a Green Paper, consideration by an all-party committee on the Constitution and the publication of legislation, the issue was again put to the people. The amendment again sought to prohibit abortion except in cases where there was a threat to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother. As in 1992 it was specified that such a threat to a woman’s life did not include self-destruction.
This time around the church authorities backed the amendment but it was opposed by a number of anti-abortion groups as well as liberal campaigners who opposed the attempt to rule out the threat of suicide as a risk to a mother’s life.
The voters again rejected the amendment, leaving the issue in a legal limbo. In practice, abortion has been permitted in the extremely limited number of cases where a woman’s life is at risk.
The issue came back on to the agenda in December 2010, when the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland should give legal standing to the X case judgment. The findings of the court, which is an institution of the Council of Europe, and not the EU as is often mistakenly believed, are not legally binding but they do have some moral force.
In response to the court decision the Government established an expert group to advise it. After considering the issue for more than a year, the group reported last November. It suggested three options, with the most comprehensive one being legislation plus regulation to give effect to the X case judgment.
The Government decided to follow that course of action and designing the legal framework will begin next week when the Oireachtas committee begins hearing the views of experts and interested parties.
In advance of that the church launched a broadside objecting to the legislation before the process has even begun. It is a dangerous strategy that amounts to a direct challenge to the authority of the electorate and the Dáil and it can only have one outcome. The elected representatives of the people simply have to win the confrontation to preserve the democratic legitimacy of the State.
The Catholic Church does have an important principle to defend in relation to the sanctity of human life but its ill-considered approach could well have the effect of undermining its message. The divisive debate it is attempting to generate could ultimately pave the way for a liberal abortion regime in the future.